The morning my mum stood at the front door of my studio, a note in her hand with a key attached, changed both our lives forever.
“I think Jim has gone and done something stupid”.
I read the note, naively thinking perhaps I’d find my stepdad in a state of inebriation down at the shed. I ran to find him, straight past the car containing his lifeless body. But the haunting cry of my mum, which stays with me to this day, directed me to turn around.
Many months before my stepdad had been diagnosed with an extremely rare condition, a rouge vain had found its way into his spine at the T7 vertebrae, causing an aneurysm that crushed his spinal cord. The pain in his lower body from the nerve damage had become excruciating and was getting progressively worse. He described it like constantly standing in boiling water or being electrocuted. He couldn’t handle anything accidentally touching him. He lost the ability to control his bladder and was losing the ability to walk.
My mum could never reconcile that my stepdad had kept this secret from her when they’d intimately shared everything in their lives. My stepdad, the meticulous planner, had ensured that every action he’d taken had been done in a way to ensure we weren’t implicated in his death.
I saw a part of my mum died along with my stepdad the day he took his took his life. Along with losing the love of her life, she lost her will to live.
The shock of that day hit us both differently. My mum began taking strong antidepressants to cope with the nightmares that regularly haunted her. I developed PTSD, my whole attitude to life changed for the worse. This entire chapter of our lives could have diverged on a much happier path if my stepdad had been allowed the option of ending his life in a painless, peaceful and humane way, with his family holding his hands as he passed over.
It was barely surprising, then, when my mum’s breast cancer returned after 17 years in remission. By the time she was diagnosed it had spread throughout her spine. In a bizarre twist of fate my mum’s spinal cord crushed at the T7 vertebrae, the same as my stepdad, giving her the same painful symptoms that he had endured.
My mother once again tried to battle the disease, undergoing surgery to try to rebuild her spine and take the pressure of the badly damaged cord, and for a short while it seemed promising. However, her paraplegia meant she couldn’t live at home any more and she lived her final years moving between hospitals and the nursing home.
There were times when the pain of her crushed spine would be too much for her. She would pull me close and beg me to help her end her life. She would ask me to secret her an overdose of the strong painkillers she had left over at home or suffocate her in her sleep.